Amid the thunderous pounding of punch presses and other factory equipment, white, Pakistani, Hispanic and Vietnamese employees stamped and assembled HVAC equipment at Lloyd Industries’ Montgomeryville plant. Among them, at the end of October 2015, were three black workers.
Two would soon be laid off and the third would have his hours reduced, so he quit, leaving no black workers at the 65-employee plant in early November 2015.
A lawyer later said the company had “whitewashed” the factory of black employees.
Ronald Watson, who earned $23,800 a year, was one of the black workers laid off. And he sued Lloyd Industries for racial discrimination, claiming in the lawsuit he was not the lowest man on the seniority list. He could work at other jobs in the plant and should have been protected by union rules against layoff. When Watson asked the new factory manager why the manager was choosing him, the factory manager replied, “Because I can.”
A federal jury in Philadelphia ruled in Watson’s favor in 2018, awarding him an astonishing $850,000 in compensatory and punitive damages after two hours of deliberation in a rare case of a workplace racial discrimination case. who made his way to a jury.
The almost all-white jury verdict was the fourth-largest labor and employment jury verdict in Pennsylvania, and among the 100 largest in the nation, in 2018, according to topverdict.com. U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson later reduced the punitive damages by $250,000 after ruling the jury’s verdict was excessive. He refused to grant Lloyd Industries a new trial.
The company appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and lost. This year, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The verdict money is expected to change hands this summer.
Lloyd Industries was “in denial that they had done anything wrong,” said Watson’s Philadelphia attorney, Samuel Dion, who says they offered to settle the case with Lloyd for less than 50,000 $. The company declined the offer.
Lloyd Industries tried “to portray Watson as a bad guy when he presented himself as a good guy,” Dion said. The company claimed that Watson was a slow worker and drank at lunch. Watson, 61, denied drinking on the job and there was no evidence he did. He declined to speak for this article.
William “Billy” Lloyd, the owner of the business, said Tuesday that “there was no evidence of racial discrimination.” Although he said he currently has no black employees at his Montgomeryville plant, he employs black workers at his Florida plant, including the foreman. Lloyd said black workers weren’t applying for jobs at his suburban Pennsylvania factory. Lloyd also said he thought his defense attorney had done a poor job.
Stacy Hawkins, a professor at Rutgers Law School, said most racial discrimination cases in the workplace do not reach a verdict because they are resolved on pre-trial motions or settled by defendants so that ‘they don’t face grand jury verdicts. “Claimants often lose every step of the way,” she said.
In the absence of an admission of discrimination by the defendant, plaintiffs mostly present circumstantial evidence in these cases and, quite often, the cases revolve around issues of credibility. Plaintiffs often lack hard evidence to convince judges or juries of their claims, Hawkins said.
“The defendant tried his luck against an unfortunate set of facts,” she said.
Lloyd, who started his business in a garage in his mother’s house in Huntingdon Valley in the 1980s, manufactures smoke and fire dampers for ductwork in large buildings. Dampers inside ducts protect buildings from the spread of smoke or fire with louvers that close.
Besides this legal battle, Lloyd has also been at war with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over the safety of its workers. The agency had inspected or convicted Lloyd Industries in 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2008, as well as in 2014, generating more than 7,000 pages of documents, The Inquirer reported. They show Lloyd failed to follow safety precautions he agreed to in regulations with OSHA, such as factory noise testing and installing guards on machines, even as amputations and related injuries were becoming a growing concern.
OSHA’s complaints came to a head in April 2019 when a federal jury found Lloyd retaliated against two employees when he fired them in 2014 and 2015 for cooperating with OSHA inspectors. OSHA was investigating an accident in which a worker had parts of three fingers “crushed” by a steel bending press. The worker, Josh Elbode, 21, said the press was malfunctioning at the time.
U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg ordered Lloyd to pay the former workers $1,047,399 in back wages and punitive damages. Lloyd appealed and the parties settled $500,000 last March, according to a settlement agreement between the government and Lloyd. As part of the settlement, Lloyd continued to deny the lawsuit’s allegations.
One of the laid off employees was factory manager Santo “Dino” Sanna.
Thomas Prendergast replaced Sanna as factory manager in June 2015 and fired Watson five months later. Prendergast told the jury that Watson was “definitely not” treated any differently than other workers. “We didn’t have a lot of work to do, so there really wasn’t any work to do. So he was the lowest senior man, so he was fired,” Prendergast said.
Watson belonged to Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 and filed a grievance for his dismissal. His Local 19 union representative agreed that Watson had the lowest seniority in an email to the plant manager. But a document produced at trial showed there were four others with less seniority than Watson.
Company owner Lloyd testified that Watson was fired because the business “got slow and I started buying parts from China”. Lloyd testified that Watson would go out to a bar for lunch and come back with booze on his breath.
Watson told the court he never drank at work and did not go to bars at lunch. He had lunch in his car.
Zanetta Ruffian, Watson’s partner of 40 years and a nurse at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, told the jury that Watson only drank socially.
On the afternoon of October 29, 2015, Prendergast gave Watson a form for new medical insurance. “I felt good,” Watson said. “I felt like, ‘you know, life was worth living at that time. I was happy.'”
But as he was leaving around 4:30 p.m., Prendergast called him into his office and told him he was firing him. “I said for what? Watson testified. “He said because I can. And he just looked at me over his glasses in a sarcastic and mean way.
Watson says he went to Lloyd who told him to “take the layoff, okay? And the way Bill said it, it was very offensive. And he jumped in my face. So I just left.
Ruffian said Watson liked his work. “He was sad,” Ruffian said of the abrupt layoff. “He was depressed. It was hard for us financially because…we had just bought the house and had to adjust to a lot of things to make up for the loss of income.
Watson perceived unemployment and sought employment. He has found another factory job in the industry where he feels appreciated. “It’s great,” he told the court during the trial. “My boss loves[s] me. He knows my talent. He knows my potential.